Fatbiking across Mongolia
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Day 1: Into to the land of the nomads
Distance travelled: 79.48 km
Man’s joy is in wide-open spaces
- Mongolian proverb
Thanking the extremely friendly Russian border guards, we began the 20-kilometre ride across no-man's land, between the two border posts. The tarmac road climbed gradually up to the pass that would lead us into Mongolia. We were finally approaching the country that I had dreamed about cycling through for most of the last decade. It was windy and chilly under the mid-morning overcast sky, but whenever the sunlight broke through a gap in the clouds it instantly became much warmer. We were alone on the road for most of the 90-or-so minutes between the borders, but now and again groups of cars that had been let through each border at the same time passed us in convoy.
Situated between two border posts was a gate between barbed wire fences, guarded by an extremely excitable Mongolian soldier, who appeared to have an extremely lonely job. We approached on our fatbikes, which he was very interested to inspect and began animatedly shouting at us in broken English. Suddenly he screamed "bus" as a very full coach that had come all the way from the capital city of Kazakhstan approached. It turned out that this bus only travels once a week between Astana, and the Mongolian city of Olgii, via Barnaul. The route was advertised in the bus window in Cyrillic text; Астана - Барнаул - Олгии. When the bus pulled up, the smiling guard disappeared instantly without saying goodbye; our first experience of the Mongolian habit of leaving without any comment, gesture or warning! Waiting for a few minutes, we sheltered from the wind in the lee of the large bus, while he boarded it and carried out whatever duties he decided were required, before dismounting, opening the gate and waving us through.
I suspected that we may then have been crossing the official land border between the two countries, whose relative development was almost comically illustrated as the gate marked the end of the perfect asphalt and the beginning of a sandy dirt track. We expected to be riding on similar tracks for most of our adventure. A strong tailwind blew us up the final pass before the Mongolian border post, before a stunningly beautiful descent through the mountainous, barren steppe began. To the south were the largest of the Altai Mountains, sitting in the far west of Mongolia with their bright white snow-capped peaks and glistening glaciers in front of a clear blue sky that lay behind them. Having left he smooth tarmac road surface behind, we let some air out of our fatbike tyres to allow them to cushion the bumpy road surface and make for a smoother ride. The large, spongy wheels absorbed all by the largest bumps and turned what would have been difficult riding on a loose surface into a formality.
Soon we could see a surprisingly modern looking border crossing, which we waved through by another guard who proceeded to offer us an appalling rate to exchange our US dollars into Mongolian tugrik, no doubt a regular service he offers tourists! Thanking him, we refused his offer, hoping to find a better rate in the border town of Tsagaanuur. Crossing the border was very easy, although the Kazakhs and Mongolians on the bus from Kazakhstan didn't seem to be as adept at queuing as we are in Britain. About ten people forced past us at passport control, quickly teaching us that we would need to physically push against others to keep our place in the line. From then on, we held our own and fortunately didn't end up behind the entire busload of travellers from Kazakhstan, whom arrived at the border post just after us. Soon afterwards, our passports were stamped and we were allowed to pass into Mongolia at last! We had entered the westernmost Aimag (administrative region) of Mongolia, named Bayan-Ölgii.
Our first stop was the border town of Ulaanbaishint. Straight away our conversation turned to food. We needed to plan what supplies we needed to buy for the next couple of days, but first we needed to sample Mongolian buuz for the first time. Buuz are steamed dumplings filled with mutton, onions and garlic and are a staple of the Mongolian diet. Finding a roadside cafe, we entered to a silent stare from the ten-or-so occupants. Soon though, they started chatting again and we were offered a seat at the end of a long table. I squeezed onto a bench and a young lady moved up a seat and shared a chair with her friend sitting next to her, making room for Phil. The table looked at us expectantly. Pointing to the buuz on the table next door, we managed to order six dumplings each, along with some milky tea, known as Suutei Tsai. Inside the adjacent the kitchen, three giggling teenage girls made fresh dough, rolled it out, cut it into individual dumplings stuffed each with mutton, before steaming them over a boiling pot sitting on a large cast iron stove. Meanwhile, we tried to get some Mongolian tugrik in exchange for some dollars. During my round the world cycle trip five years ago, I cycled through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. In these countries, I found it very easy to exchange dollars for the local currency in each town that I passed through. People were desperate to exchange their money for the much more stable dollar, often offering better rates than banks. Here though, it seemed that people weren't as ready to part with the local currency. Perhaps the tugrik holds it value well, or perhaps Mongolians don't use money as often. The nomadic lifestyle is all but self-sufficient, so I supposed that dollars were pretty useless in this remote town in the undeveloped west of the country. Fortunately for us the border guard who had offered us tugrik at the border entered the cafe and we managed to negotiate a better rate, 1700 tugrik for 1 dollar (although the official rate was around 2050). We exchanged 40 dollars; enough to get us to a town with a bank in a couple of days’ time.
Our food arrived and two of the table's occupants passed us ketchup and a black "seasoning" sauce, which is similar to soy, along with a large flask of tsai. The flask was undoubtedly a Chinese import, with a picture of a trumpet above the golden italic phrase "the sound of music - lucky bird". Most of the people on the table looked Kazakh, with angular features, beaked noses and high cheek bones, although one man had the rounder, more gentle face of a Mongolian. This area of the country, the Bayan-Olgii Aimig (or province) is mainly inhabited by Kazakhs, whose numbers increased threefold during Soviet days. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Mongolia became a democracy and many of them moved back to their homeland for a better life, leading to a significant drop in population. Many have since returned though and the population is again on the up. The people sitting on our table were wearing Western-style clothes and were generally a very friendly bunch. Suddenly, they decided it was time to leave and again, disappeared without any formal farewell.
Phil and I looked at our map, deciding which way we would go. Paper maps of Mongolia were difficult to get hold of. I had purchased two, both of which were very large scale, the more detailed being 1:1,600,000. This scale was impossible to directly navigate from but gave us the town names, which was useful when asking for directions and to plan an overall route. Having spoken to various people, including the Polish motorcyclist in Kosh-Agach and the Russians who gave us a lift to the border, it seemed that most of the road traffic heading east across the country would take the more southerly road. Having come to Mongolia to experience its great unpopulated wilderness, we decided to take the northern route that would pass over mountain ranges, cross a branch of the Gobi Desert, pass two large lakes, and then pass through remote steppe for a few days, before reaching the more populated central regions of the country. Looking at our map, we would pass through a few small towns the next day, so we would not need to carry too many supplies. We purchased a few bottles or water and snacks from a little shop, to go with the supplies we had bought in the Russian border town of Tashanta.
Cycling out of Ulaanbaishint, we were instantly surrounded by the epic vastness of the Mongolian countryside. A tailwind blew us along a slightly downhill dirt track in the centre of a wide plain between two large ranges of hills. The steppe was stony and sandy but fertile enough to be covered in short grass and dotted in gers, the traditional Mongolian round tent dwelling, more commonly known as yurts in most other countries. Large herds of goats and sheep grazed on either side of the road and horses stood close to many of the gers. Other than the track and a line of telegraph poles, the landscape was completely untouched by any permanent influence from man. Rounded a corner, we passed a large, deep blue lake surrounded by more gleaming white gers, with giant animal herds grazing on the shoreline, in front of a backdrop of grass-covered hills.
Soon we reached Tsagaanuur, a relatively large town, which contained a few permanent buildings, an empty school and lot of gers. Kids played in large groups and rode cheap Chinese bikes around in circles until we approached, at which point they came over to race us, accelerating as they passed by. This competitive need to race is a habit that all children seem to have, in every country that I have cycled in! I sometimes took part in the “race”, overtaking the children again, then letting them pass me and waving after them. Reaching the centre of the town, we stopped at a shop and were instantly surrounded. Soon the kids were all having a go on our fatbikes and were, quite incredibly able to ride them with all the heavy bags attached, even though they were far too big for them. Kids in Mongolia learn to ride horses from a very early age so have excellent balance and we thought that this may help their bike riding skills. As we left the shop, a motorcyclist approached and asked us if we wanted tsai (tea). Nodding, we followed him on his motorbike as he led us for around a kilometre to his ger, on the outskirts of the town.
After arriving, we introduced ourselves, before finding out that his name was Batbayar. Batbayar’s family’s ger sat on a patch of stony ground surrounded by grass. We were introduced to the head of the family, an elderly gentleman with a friendly face and a goatee beard. He wore a shirt, cardigan, and a waistcoat jacket as well as a flatcap on his head. He gestured for us to enter the ger, which had a beautiful interior. The wooden trellis walls were lined in colourful felt blankets and the roof made from around 100 willow sticks, supporting the white felt material that covers the ger like bike wheel spokes. Directly above us was the toono, the roof ring, which is the most complex part of the structure, being perfectly circular, with slots cut to hold each of the roof struts in place. Around the ger were seven beds, one of which was also used as a sofa, a table and chairs, an area where meat was hung behind a patterned green sheet, a kitchen area and a cupboard containing tools, horse riding equipment and other possessions. In the centre sat the large cast iron stove, next to which crouched Batbayar 's mother, who was preparing food for us. Soon a plate of bread and cheese sat in front of us, next to a steaming bowl of milky tsai. Next came a bowl of rice with mutton, along with more tsai. The food was all delicious and very filling, which was excellent fuel for fatbiking.
As we ate, I explained that I had lost my helmet in Russia and that I needed to buy a hat to protect myself from the sun. I assumed that there was no chance I would be able to buy another helmet. Batbayar offered to sell me his cap for the equivalent of three dollars, which I agreed to, and the problem was solved. It soon became clear that the family expected money for the food, which we were perfectly happy to part with, since it cost very little and they had been very friendly. This was something we would bear in mind for the rest of our trip though, since it can be damaging if locals start thinking of tourists as a source of money, leading to the loss of aspects of traditional lifestyles. I have been to many communities around the world, where tourism has led to people no longer pursuing typical jobs, but making money by selling goods or services to tourist, sometimes at grossly inflated prices. This was not yet a problem in this part of Mongolia though, since there are so few tourists passing through.
It turned out to be the only time that a Mongolian family asked for money from us for hospitality inside a ger. As we left, we were given a bag of curd, a hard snack made from fermented milk, with a salty, cheesy taste. I thought it was delicious, whereas Phil was not a fan. In the days of Genghis Khan, a network of horse mounted messengers was used to carry the Khan's orders from one side of his empire to the other quickly. It is said that one of the messengers could travel over 100 kilometres in a day and could continue for ten days eating nothing but curd! The experience was a fantastic insight into the life of Batbayar's family. We were both very keen to meet some "real" nomads, living out in the steppe that lay ahead.
Waving farewell, we left Tsagaanuur in the late afternoon and soon approached another lake that was glistening in the low evening sunlight. On the shore, was silhouette of what could only have been cycle tourers. This was confirmed when they walked over to chat to us. The friendly German couple were on a much longer trip than us, but had found their crossing of Mongolia very hard work. They were both very tired and keen to get into Russia the following day. They had found the terrain very difficult and were sick on mosquitoes, but though we would enjoy the route much more on our fatbikes. They told us that they had spent two half days pushing through the desert near Uvs Nuur, a giant saline lake we would pass in a few days. They had also taken a 100-kilometre detour around nearby Achit Nuur (another large lake), because a bridge over the Khatuugin Gol had collapsed. Nuur and gol are Mongolian words for lake and river respectively. This was potentially a big problem for us too, and would delay us by over a day if we had to cycle around Achit Nuur. Passing on our experience in Mongolia so far and of the border crossing to Russia, we shared stories, then cycled on, planning to cycle for another hour-or-so before we stopped for the night.
The jeep track road joined a river at the bottom of a large valley, which it followed quite closely. A few gers were built on the grass near the river, next to which were more large herds of sheep and goats, which seemed to be kept in large groups, sometimes of 100 or more animals. The sheep seem to get on fine with the goats and the herds are mixed, containing both animals of both genders and all ages. We fancied a quiet campsite that night so we passed the gers before finding a spot of our own by the riverside, out of sight and quiet. While pitching my tent, I stopped to think about where I was. In the remote west of perhaps the greatest remaining wilderness in the world. Two days ago, I was still in Sheffield, having just finished a very busy first year working as a physics teacher. Now I was here, my biggest worry being planning how much food and water to carry and which way to go; I love cycle touring!
Soon our camp was set up and we ate dinner, including a tasty salami-like sausage we had bought in Russia. A Kazakh motorcyclist suddenly appeared, heading our way. We were confused as to where he was heading, until he wobbled between the stones and grassy tussocks that lay between the road and our tents. It was clear he was curious about who we were and wanted to say hi. He was a young man, wearing fashionable western clothes and apparently on his way to Tsagaanuur to drink vodka with his friends. Showing him our bikes, tents and many of our possessions, we offered him some biscuits which he quickly ate. He stayed for around 20 minutes, then disappeared instantly. We thought he must have come from a ger further down the valley and hoped that he didn't visit us again later with his vodka drinking friends! A few dry bushes provided us with enough fuel to make a small fire, using the small branches that had dropped off them. We managed to heat a pan of water to make tea on the fire, which was an unexpected luxury as we had not been able to buy any petrol in Tsagaanuur, which we needed to power Phil's stove. Both absolutely shattered, we went to bed before sunset, at around 9.30. I lay in bed very content with life and drifted off to sleep almost instantly, despite my foam sleeping mat being very thin and not at all comfortable!
Day 2: The swamp
Distance travelled: 78.13 kilometres
Don't undo your bootlaces until you have seen the river.
- Mongolian proverb
With a few aches and pains, I awoke at sunrise. Shortly afterwards, my alarm went off and woke Phil up too. After a quick breakfast, we packed up our campsite and loaded the bikes. Throughout our trip, it usually took us a bit over an hour to get going in the morning, with time for a leisurely breakfast and a hot drink. The day began with a ride along the riverside, a few hundred metres away from the jeep track, that was higher up the valley side. It took around 15 minutes of leisurely riding across grassy and rocky terrain in the deep valley, heading towards four gers. The gers were built in a wider part of the valley that lay ahead; an incredibly scenic choice of a place to settle for the season. The riding was fun and relatively easy on the fatbikes which were more than capable of riding over the very bumpy "shortcut" we were taking back to the track. Soon we made it back to the “main road”, to waves and incredulous looks from the nomads standing by their gers.
The track continued to follow the river valley downhill for around another ten kilometres, until the mountain range came to an end and we were spat out into a vast plain that stretched so far to the north and the south that we couldn't see where it ended. To the south was Achit Nuur; the giant but shallow freshwater lake that the Germans had had to cycle around to avoid fording the Khatuugin Gol. To the east, which was the direction that we were heading, we could make out the town of Nogoonuur on our side of the river, and the town of Bukmurin about ten kilometres further away, on the other side. Past Bukmurin lay another large mountain range, that we would be crossing at some point in the future. When depended very much upon whether we could cross the river that lay ahead. Between the two towns, lay a large expanse of deep green vegetation, where the river widened before entering Achit Nuur. We had decided to attempt to cross the river between the two towns to save ourselves the long detour around the lake. We hoped that crossing the river close to the north shore of the lake would be easiest, since the river split into lots of channels. Our thinking was that the river would be shallower, with less current that the single main channel further north, although we had absolutely no idea if the crossing was possible... we would soon see.
The downhill gradient continued, although became less steep as the plain neared the river. The temperature increased as the morning progressed and our altitude decreased. As the air grew hotter and more humid, the number of flying insects quickly increased. When camping last night, we had both been bitten a few times by mosquitoes, but there were not many and we kept them at bay with insect repellent. Here, not only were there millions of mosquitoes, there were giant horseflies that bit as soon as they made contact with our skin. These bites were very painful, feeling similar to a wasp sting. At the speed we were cycling downhill, the mosquitoes couldn't "dock" onto our skin to bite us, however the horseflies could. Cycling as fast as we could to try to prevent bites, we soon reached the settlement of Nogoonuur. Expecting little more than a few gers and possibly a small shop, we were surprised to find a large town, although it appeared to be completely deserted. When cycling into the town we didn’t see anybody for around five minutes. All of the doors were shut and the place felt like a post-apocalyptic ghost town. Speculating about the reasons for this, we thought that perhaps it had been abandoned after the breakup of the Soviet Union, or perhaps that people lived there in the winter and in gers during the summer. Stopping to consider our options, we were soon covered in mosquitoes. Perhaps they were the reason that nobody was outside.
After covering ourselves in deet, an effective but apparently carcinogenic insect repellent that can also damage waterproof clothing, the mosquitoes subsided slightly. This allowed us to continue exploring the town in slightly less discomfort. Eventually we came across three middle-aged men in a compound of ramshackle buildings. They were tractor mechanics and were fixing an ancient looking one as we approached. They seemed to be entirely unconcerned by the mosquitoes and completely unsurprised to see us. I asked if there was a magazin (shop in Russian) in town, to which they nodded and the nearest grabbed his motorbike, beckoning for us to follow. He led us into the town "centre", which comprised of several larger buildings, including what looked like a town hall and a deserted school. Passing a petrol station, we filled up our fuel bottle with unleaded, which we would use to power Phil's stove, before finding the "shop". It was little more than a cupboard full of out-of-date tinned food, noodles and vodka. I saw a bottle of coke with a sell-by-date of January 2003 on display! Despite encouragement from our now growing audience, I opted against buying a litre bottle of vodka that was cheaper than the mineral water in the shop, and instead bought eight litres of water, four packets of noodles, some ropey-looking potatoes, a can of pasta sauce and a packet of choco pies, which are a sort of marshmallowy chocolate snack from China that is available across most of Asia. Despite their rather bland taste and stale texture, I can say from experience, that choco pies are one of the better options in such shops.
I left the shop to find Phil surrounded by a larger crowd than before, most of whom were very drunk, even though it was well before noon. The nomads we had seen so far did not appear to drink much, but there seemed to be serious drinking problems amongst the men who lived in smaller towns. They were not aggressive or unkind and seemed very interested and eager to help, despite the stench of vodka on their breath and their unkempt, dirty appearance. I felt very sorry for them, thinking about their lot in life. They live in a town that is unimaginably cold for over six months of the year and that is infested with mosquitoes for most of the rest. There are no employment prospects and without any money, there would not be able to purchase animals to start up a traditional nomadic lifestyle. Perhaps many of them had been nomadic but had lost their herds during bad winters. A severe winter in Mongolia is known as a zud, during which large numbers of livestock die as there is no food for them to graze on, sometimes because there is so much snow that they cannot get to the vegetation underneath. Harsh zuds can lead to economic crises and widespread food shortages throughout the country and are becoming increasingly common with climate change.
We asked the tractor mechanic, who was not drunk, about crossing the river to Bukmurin. He seemed positive about our chances, signalling that the water would be no be deeper than our waists, but quite fast flowing. Many of the other men were not so positive, telling us that the river would be over our heads if we tried to cross it and that we should go around. Given that the tractor mechanic was the only sober male in the group, we decided to trust him and risk the river crossing. Finding some shade from the heat of the sun, we put on more insect repellent, ate some choco pies, then set off towards the river. Soon, we had entered a giant swamp, with waterlogged ground across which ran a completely flooded jeep track. There was no point trying to follow the track, so we followed a compass bearing that would lead us to Bukmurin, at which point, we expected to be able to join the main road once more. The mosquitoes and horse flies soon became completely unbearable. When cycling, we were constantly swatting the buzzing insects but whenever we had to stop, we were instantly covered. It is hard to explain quite how horrific the experience was! When stationary, at least twenty of the blood-sucking demons had bitten us within ten seconds. Large red bites were appearing all over both of us and to vary the torture, every now and again a horsefly contributed to the pain. We were progressing well however and were successfully riding across the waterlogged swamp, taking a path that normal bikes would have no chance of passing along over soft, squashy ground.
Our first major obstacle was a small river channel, knee deep and slow-flowing. We easily lifted our bikes through and continued into thicker vegetation where shrubs, higher than head height grew. The intensity of the mosquitoes seemed to increase if that was possible as we approached the first major river channel. Weaving through the vegetation, we eventually reached the river and my heart sank; it was over ten metres wide and with a visibly strong current that would be very difficult to wade through. Putting down the bikes, we walked to the river, which I instantly jumped into to wash off the mosquitoes, giving me a few seconds of respite! To our delight, we could walk across the river, which was much shallower than it looked. The tractor mechanic was right, it only reached our waists. One at a time, we lifted our bikes across the water, crossing the channel trouble free (although receiving another hundred-or-so bites in the process). Continuing for another 20 minutes through this hell-on-Earth, we eventually reached the second channel that was larger than the first but at this point there was absolutely zero chance that we were turning back! Since we reached the river at a bend, it wasn't the best point to cross as the current was much stronger, and the river much deeper on the outside of the curve. After about five minutes of pushing our bikes along the riverbank, we found a straight part of the river, which was crossable. This time both of us needed to lift each bike one at a time across the river, which was above our hips. Soon we were across and battling on to the town that we could now see only a few hundred metres away, underneath ten-or-so circling eagles.
Eventually, we reached the town with swollen faces, itchy limbs and depleted energy levels, but we had made it! We had saved a day of riding around the lake and would soon be back into the mountains. Finding a shop in the much more welcoming and populated town, we were able to shelter from the insect onslaught and refuel on coke. Soon afterwards, we left the shop to find that the weather had dramatically changed from bright sunshine, to thick cloud and a strong wind that threatened an incoming storm. A large patch of heavy rain was approaching across the swamp, which we could see from a long way away, due to the flat landscape. The wind that had picked up was a westerly, which was good news, since it would soon help us to cycle along the road leading east. More importantly though, the mosquitoes had disappeared, clearly unable to fly in the strong wind. Phil went into a bank in his lycra shorts, planning to exchange money. Apparently, the locals weren't too impressed with his choice of outfit and he wasn't sure if they refused to serve him or whether they didn't offer an exchange service, but suspected the latter! We continued out of the town, still with enough money to make it to the next bank, feeling very pleased with ourselves for managing to cross the river and passing the swamp.
Just after the leaving the pleasant town, we reached a spectacular outcrop of rocky crags, coloured sandstone red and around 100 feet high. More eagles circled ahead, peering down on their territory below and looking for prey. Finding a comfortable rock to sit on, we stopped for lunch looking around at the beautiful setting. We could see the swamp we had just crossed, and in the other direction, was another large grassy plain in front of the mountains that we hoped to reach that evening.
After lunch, a short climb over a small pass led us to a descent onto the wide plain. Although very pleasant, the repetitive views were now playing mind-games with my head and the mountains on the far side of the plain looked a very long way away. The steppe didn't change much but unfortunately the wind direction had changed, meaning that we were now cycling into a strong headwind that limited our speed to about ten kilometres per hour. The flat, featureless landscape was thirty kilometres wide, so including breaks, it took us all afternoon to cross it. Every time I raised my weary head up to look up at the horizon in hope that we were nearly there, the mountains just didn't seem to be getting any closer. It was incredibly demoralising and psychologically challenging after the horrific experience in the swamp! Eventually though, we made it and climbed a few hundred metres into the mountains to escape from the mosquitoes that had returned when the sun came out again. Our tactic didn't work, so we had the immense pleasure of blood-sucking company while eating dinner that evening; potatoes with surprisingly delicious canned Russian pasta sauce. After dinner, I entered my mosquito free tent and was so tired that night that I fell asleep with pen in hand after writing just a single line in my diary.
Day 3: Mountain passes and Üüreg Nuur
Distance travelled: 77.29 kilometres
If you drink the water from a place, then also follow the custom of that place
- Mongolian proverb
After waking at around seven o'clock, we used most of our remaining water to make a pan full of tea and another full of noodles for breakfast. Knowing that there was a large lake that contained potable water a few kilometres away, we weren't worried about running out of water to drink. The ride to the top of the pass in the cool morning air was fantastic, as we climbed on a lovely dirt track that wound up the grassy mountainside between high rocky peaks. As we reached higher land, the ground became less dry and therefore more fertile, allowing thicker and longer grass to grow. Over the top of the pass was a wide pasture that spread out in front of us, surrounded by mountains. With the longer grass came nomadic families living in gers, dotted across the landscape and surrounded by grazing herds. Outside the gers, around 20 children played, some had bikes and were whizzing around in circles. When they spotted us, they waved enthusiastically, which we returned to their delight. Throughout our crossing of Mongolia, we met hundreds of nomadic children because they were all on their summer holiday. For most the year, Mongolian children are at school, where they board during the freezing winter months, giving them access to a reliable water supply, sanitation and access to a good education. Eight years of school attendance is compulsory in Mongolia and educating their children is now a priority for Mongolian parents. This has led to the remarkable achievement of a 98% literacy rate throughout the country.
As we approached one of the gers, a man came over on his motorbike to say hi, before admiring our fatbikes. He had a ride on mine and seemed to very much enjoy himself, since he returned with a large smile spreading from ear-to-ear, revealing a mouthful of tobacco-stained teeth. He saw our nearly empty water bottles and motioned for us to wait, while he went to fill them up. He took the bottles and zoomed off back to his home. He returned a few minutes later with our bottles full of slightly brown water, along with another family member who also wanted to look at our equipment. What a kind thing to do! Without us asking or making a signal, he could see we were short of water, so solved our problem. Phil gave him some cigarette filter papers that he had brought to give away as presents on advice from a guidebook. The man looked at them confused before working out what they were, motioning rolling a cigarette. He then took one out of the packet and proceeded to chew the paper, before spitting it out and nodding happily. We weren't sure how pleased he was with his present!
Climbing on, we soon reached the highest pass of that mountain range, at 2020 metres. At the top, a spectacular view over the next landscape was revealed. A shimmering, dark blue, giant lake lay in front of us, surrounded by grassy steppe and many more rocky mountain ranges in all directions. Our track made a beeline for the south end of the lake, heading in a straight line down the mountainside, rounding the bottom of the lake, then climbing up a mountain slope on the other side of the plain. Large herds of horses stood close to the track as we descended quickly to the beautiful Üüreg Nuur, which is an endorheic lake, meaning it has no outflow. It is one of the smaller lakes in this area of Mongolia, known as the Great Lakes Depression, despite it being 20 km wide and 18 km long. It has the reputation of being the most beautiful due to its spectacular surroundings and is apparently fantastic for fishing, containing salmon and the legendary Mongolian Taimen, which can reach two metres long and weigh up to 100 kilograms!
Descending quickly, we soon reached the southern shore of the lake, which was mercifully mosquito-free as there was a strong wind blowing, creating small waves that broke onto the pebbly beach that lined the edge of the water. We were soon swimming in the surprisingly warm lake, which was wonderfully refreshing since we hadn't washed since the evening before crossing the mosquito infested swamp. After cleaning ourselves (with biodegradable soap), we washed our cycling clothes, before sitting on the beach to eat lunch. We relaxed on the lakeside until the wind-speed dropped and the mosquitoes returned.
Before leaving, we filled our water bottles up with the drinkable but very slightly saline water from the lake before continuing across the plain, passing many more large herds of sheep and goats as well as a tourist ger camp. The climb up the pass on the east side of the lake provided spectacular views back over Üüreg Nuur. At the top was another high grassy pasture, on which large herds of beautiful wild horses lived. What struck me most about these incredible animals, is how lean and muscular they are, smaller and skinnier that their British cousins. Their speed as they galloped across the grasslands was impressive, but their stamina, more so, they seemed to be able to run forever. The bumpy track that crossed it seemed to have claimed quite a few mechanical victims over the years, since it was scattered with broken car parts. We came across a broken-down minibus, outside of which a group of teenagers calmly sat, awaiting rescue. The constant bumping had affected Phil's pannier rack setup too, causing it to move slightly, meaning that the bottom of the rack was in contact with the rear derailleur. Fifteen minutes of filing a bracket that the mount was attached to, provided a bit more clearance to the derailleur, which may have been damaged otherwise.
After twenty kilometres, we had crossed the mountain range and reached a yet another wonderful viewpoint looking over another vast hilly landscape, covered in gers and with another large lake to the north. Deciding that this vantage point would make for a memorable campsite, we left the road at the top of a very steep slope, on which a car was struggling to drive uphill, revving loudly and trying to weave its way up. Rounding a small mound on the roadside, we found a relatively flat piece of the hillside where we pitched our tents with a panoramic view of the stunning, typically Mongolian scenery in all directions. We set up camp, made dinner along with a pan of green tea and caught up on our diaries. The sky was slowly turning a vivid red as the sun disappeared behind the mountains. The sunset was one of the most beautiful I have ever seen.
Almost ready for bed, we heard the quiet whirring of a distant motorcycle that appeared to be heading towards us. Soon enough it became clear that the rider was heading our way. A few minutes later he and his son dismounted and came to say hi. The man sat down and smiled. He had a go on Phil's bike which he loved, then started rifling through our possessions. He was so interested in what we had. I supposed that he had probably never seen a petrol stove, a Swiss army knife, a fold up pan, a cycling tool kit, a pannier, a compact tent, a blow-up mattress or (certainly) two fat bikes! He passed some of our kit to his son to have a look at. I grabbed a map to show him where we had been (our map had Mongolian writing on as well as English phonetic place names) and our route plan, although I don't think he knew the geography of his country very well because he looked a bit confused. We communicated that we had run out of petrol and wanted to make tea. He disconnected the fuel pipe from his motorbike, filled up our petrol bottle, then reconnected it: problem solved! Lighting the stove, Phil made a pan of tea, that was slightly salty from the lake water. Pouring out two mugs of tea, Phil and I shared one, and the man and his son, the other. Suddenly they got up and hopped on their motorbike! Phil gave him a couple of fishing hooks, which he was delighted with, signalling towards Üüreg Nuur. Waving as he left we looked at each other and laughed at the fact that he had just searched through our equipment without asking and moved around like a whirlwind through our campsite! He was a lovely man though and this wasn't rude behaviour, just different to what we are used to in the UK. On that note, we went to bed, both falling in love with this wonderful country.
Day 4: To Ulaangom
Distance travelled: 62 kilometres
'We sat on the snow and looked at the country far below us … we nibbled Kendal Mint Cake.'
- Sir Edmund Hillary on the first successful ascent of Everest
Our food supplies were low and all we had to drink was the briny water from Üüreg Nuur. Having exclusively drunk this water for most of the previous day and were getting rather sick of its taste. Due to the salt dissolved in it, I couldn't prevent my mouth from drying out, no matter how much of it I drank. I put a green tea bag into each of our water bottles to attempt to mask the taste of the salt mixed with the iodine we'd used to purify the water. This worked quite well, making the disgusting water slightly less so. Our breakfast was equally awful, consisting of salty dried noodles and even more salty soup. Entirely sick of the salt overload, we couldn't wait to reach Ulaangom where we would be able to get a decent meal. Our guidebook even said that one of the restaurants there served steak!
After packing up our campsite, we were ready to depart and decided to descend straight down the hillside and intersect the road at the bottom, rather than to head back up to the track. The ground wasn't too bumpy as we rode down the grassy, stony slope. Cycling directly towards the rising sun at around 30 kilometres per hour, we were soon onto the large plain in the centre of a bowl of mountains. The fat bikes took the descent in their stride, absorbing all of the small bumps and making it possible to ride on the difficult terrain as if it was a tarmac road. Soon, we reached the main track that bisected the vast grassy pastures that we needed to cross before the final climb of the day. On the plain, we saw a nomad horse rider attempting to catch a wild horse with a lasso. He galloped around it, throwing the lasso at the horse until he managed to throw it over its head, then led it struggling back to his ger. He would probably attempt to train it, to add to his herd.
Having crossed the plain, a breath-taking eight-kilometre climb up the far side of the bowl was sapping our energy as we struggled against the headwind. We were both finding the riding very difficult on our limited food supplies, until I remembered that I had a secret stash of Kendal Mint Cake. The sugary minty snack gave us an instant energy boost that transformed our mood and the final few kilometres of the climb seemed a lot easier. I could see why Kendal Mint Cake was the most popular food of the team on Sir Edmund Hillary's ascent of Everest and why Sir Ernest Shackleton took rations of mint cake with him on his 1914 ill-fated Trans-Arctic Expedition. As we neared the top of the climb, some of the largest mountains in Mongolia came into view to the south. Their towering rocky peaks were coated in snow above gigantic cliffs that peered down imperiously on the smaller grass-covered hills below.
Mountains have been revered in Mongolia since Genghis Khan's days. When he was young, he lost a battle against the Merkit tribe and escaped death by hiding on Burkhan Khaldun Mountain. He pronounced the mountain sacred in response to the protection it offered him and spent three days there praying to the gods. At the peak of the mountain is the Main Ovoo of Heaven, a cairn-style pile of rocks, which acts as site of worship for both Shamans and Buddhists, two of the major religions of Mongolia. All over Mongolia, Ovoos are built at the top of mountains and at high mountain passes. They are worshiped during organised ceremonies but it is a custom to show your respect to the ovoo when travelling past. We reached the top of our mountain pass and sure enough, saw the ovoo, covered in offerings including sweets, milk, curd, prayer flags and money. In exchange the Gods provide a safe journey, pleasant weather and large livestock herds. We followed the tradition of circling the ovoo three times in a clockwise direction and throwing a rock onto the pile of rocks each time we completed a circuit. The mountain gods would hopefully be on our side for the remainder of the journey!
A brilliant descent waited for us, leading from the pass to the vast desert stretching out for hundreds of kilometres to the east. A fantastic, narrow, singletrack trail cut off the first corner of the main track on but soon joined back up with the wider, steep and stony trail. The descent led down an epic wide valley at which ended at the northern branch of the gigantic, 1,500-kilometre-long Gobi Desert, which stretches from our location to close to Beijing. Entering the Gobi marked the end of the mountainous region in the west of Mongolia. We would be crossing the most northern part of the desert for the next few days, but before attempting the crossing we would reach the capital of the Uvs Aimag; Ulaangom. We would plan the logistics of surviving in the desert for a few days that afternoon and evening.
While descending, we saw Uvs Nuur for the first time. Uvs Nuur is the largest lake in Mongolia, with a vast surface area of 3,350 km2. Incredibly its average depth is just six metres, it has no outlet and its water is five times saltier than the sea. Despite its high salinity though, it freezes from October to May every year. The vast desert plain we were heading towards was formed by the giant saline sea that once covered a much larger area but all that is left of it now is Uvs Nuur. The giant lake dominated the horizon to the northeast’ so large that we couldn't make out its edges or its far side. At the bottom of the descent, we entered a much drier, sandy landscape with far less vegetation than the endless alpine pastures that we had left behind us. All that could grow here were tough, dry shrubs and sparse grasses. To our surprise, the road changed from a dirt track to a new tarmac road with a perfect surface; far better than most English roads.
We cruised along at 20 kilometres per hour and soon reached Ulaangom, crossing a few large rivers, flowing away from the mountains to the south. Ulaangom seemed to be built on a more fertile piece of land, surrounded by a grassy area on which hundreds of gers were built. Presumably living close to the large city is very convenient for their inhabitants. On the way into the city, almost every telegraph pole had a large eagle perched on top of it and many more circled around in the sky above us. We thought that the eagles probably scavenged food from the city. I reflected that this existence was somewhat different to the way that they had evolved to live. On the edge of the city was the first shop we had seen for a couple of days. I went in and bought two cold bottles of Fanta, two Snickers and two ice creams. At this lower altitude with the powerful sun shining down on us, the temperature was far hotter than we had experienced so far. The refreshing snack was very welcome before we continued into the city centre. We found an excellent hotel in the north of the city, which had a garage to keep the bikes in, a warm shower and very surprisingly, relatively fast WiFi.
Ulaangom turned out to be a modern city, with wide tree-lined streets and large communist-style buildings, built during the Soviet era. We found our way to the large zakh (market) in the north of the city, which had a large food area where we bought supplies for the desert crossing ahead. I purchased two large bottles of Fanta which held more liquid that the water bottles I had on my bike. I would use these to carry water on the large bottle mounts on my bike's fork legs near the front wheel. I also had a three-litre water bladder that fit in my small rucksack and room to strap one more water bottle onto the dry bag containing my tent, foam mat and sleeping bag, attached to my handlebars, allowing me to carry a total of nine litres. At the market, we found a fantastic restaurant, where we had dumplings, eggs, mutton stew, noodles and rice all mixed together; a great lunch!
Back at the hotel, we planned the next part of our route using the internet at the hotel. There were four main options: a southern route that passed along the north side of Khyragas Lake, was probably the easiest option since we had heard that the route had been partly paved; a route that climbed up to higher ground to the north of the Khan Khokhii Mountains sounded like the second easiest, being on good track; the third and fourth options were two sandy tracks that crossed the desert close to Uvs Nuur, the northernmost of the two being a slightly longer route that followed the edge of the lake. Being on fatbikes we thought that it would be sacrilege to not try them out on the sandy desert tracks. We decided to take the more southerly northern route that passed close to Uvs Nuur, since we would be able to see the lake without having to make a long detour up to the lake shore. We were using an incredibly good opensource map that was available for free download on the ViewRanger App; highly recommended for any travellers in Mongolia. It not only has all place names and roads marked but also contour lines for the entire country showing the altitude at any point. We updated our maps to ensure we had the route near Uvs Nuur downloaded. It was important that we both carried paper maps too, in case of phone malfunction.
That evening we searched the local shops in vain for a Mongolian sim card to keep in touch with our wives, Laura (me) and Caroline (Phil). We were told that we had to go to the head office of the phone network (Mobicom) to get one from there in the morning. Returning to the hotel, we went to the restaurant for the promised steak that I had read they served in my guidebook. We both ordered one, to be told 15 minutes later that they had none. We then tried to order pork chops, but were then told again that they had none! Eventually we were told that they only had two things available on their long and varied menu: mutton dumplings and chicken with chips. Very disappointed, we ordered them instead. The restaurant in the hotel was very grand, with enough space for around 100 customers and with large tables, all laid for dinner. However, we were the only two there that night. Perhaps it was available for wedding receptions or other events, but I couldn't see how it would ever fill up otherwise. After a tasty local lager, we headed up to bed, ready for an early start the following day.
Day 5: The Gobi Desert
Distance travelled: 93.15 kilometres
This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end. And at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat.
- Marco Polo
Starting early, we packed, showered, loaded our food and water onto the bikes and left the hotel, before heading into town. At a pharmacy, we were surprised but pleased to find more sun cream, although it was very expensive, being a largely luxury item in Mongolia. At the mobile phone shop, we found a sim card, then bought some delicious pizza and cakes from a small bakery. On the way out of the city, we passed the large wrestling stadium with an impressive statue of a giant wrestler in the devee dance position, where the wrestler imitates a falcon taking off. The wrestler in the statue was wearing the traditional wrestling outfit; long boots, an open fronted jacket with long sleeves and short silk trunks lined with leather. The reason for the open fronted jacket is fascinating. A long time ago, during a national wrestling competition, an unheard-of wrestler won the tournament to the great surprise of all competitors. At the end of the tournament, to the great embarrassment of all involved, the wrestler revealed herself to be a woman. Since then wrestlers have worn open-fronted jackets, to be certain that this could not happen again!
Mongolians are obsessed with wrestling and stadia exist in most towns. Matches can last a while but may be over in seconds, since they finish when any part of the loser's body other than their feet touches the ground. The ambition of serious wrestlers is to compete in the annual Nadaam festival, in which competitors represent their town and can rise through the professional ranks. The highest rank is Invincible-Titan and any wrestler reaching these lofty heights will become a national celebrity. The most famous wrestler is named Bat-Erdene, who carried the country's flag in the Sydney Olympics and incredibly won 42% of the national vote as the presidential candidate of the Mongolian People's Party in the 2013 general election. He now owns a University that trains wrestlers, coaches and other sportsmen. The passion that Mongolians have for wrestling was illustrated in the 2016 Rio Olympics, when after their competitor controversially lost the bronze medal match, his two coaches stripped off to their pants and squared up to the judges, performing the devee dance!
Leaving the city, we climbed on a tarmac road over a small pass with large grassy meadows full of gers to the north and the south. An irrigation channel had been built and part of the bank was supported by an old car that was completely buried in mud. Many passing cars honked at us as we climbed up the pass and shouts of encouragements followed us as we progressed. After cycling over the top then down the other side, we left the main road to take a short cut through a river, rather than making a five-kilometre detour over the bridge further to the south. Many vehicles had done the same thing, carving out a track that we followed down to the river. Phil had to stop to reattach his panniers which came unclipped, while I looked for a suitable place to cross the river. I found a spot that was knee deep so we waded through and joined the road on the other side. The road was no longer tarmac, having become a dirt track once more, heading north towards Uvs Nuur.
The track had a decent surface to start with, hard-packed and stony, so we made timely progress away from the mountains. The vegetation surrounding Ulaangom began thinning out, the ecosystem becoming a much drier and sandy desert once more. Sparse shrubs still grew but there was clearly infrequent rainfall in this area in comparison to the fertile grasslands. Lizards scampered across the track in front of us and large camouflaged insects including huge grasshoppers hid in the grass. A few tiny jumping rodents, named jerboa ran away from us as we approached and golden eagles circled overhead, looking for prey. As we passed the last of the buildings and gers that had been sporadically built close to the road near Ulaangom, our track turned east and became more sandy, draggy and bumpy. To give ourselves a more comfortable ride and to allow our bikes to float better over the soft sandy surface, we let a little air pressure out of our tyres to allow them to have a higher surface area in contact with the ground. Looking to the north, Uvs Nuur dominated the horizon. It was now clear enough for us to see beyond the lake, where a large mountain range in Russia was visible. Apparently, it is not uncommon for Russians to cross the border to steal horses from the Mongolian nomads living in the desert. As a result, there is a high degree of mistrust of Russians amongst the locals in this area.
Our road often split, so it took careful map reading to make sure we stayed on the correct route. The free opensource map on our phones were good enough to include all the small jeep tracks, so we could easily check that we were heading the right way. For the first 20 kilometres, the track was not too difficult to ride on and would have been easily passable, if slightly more slowly, on a normal bike. After the first section however, the track became little more than rutted sand and would certainly not have been rideable without the extra float provided by our four-inch-wide tyres. Our fatbikes had been awesome so far but we were blown away by their performance in the desert. They really are the ultimate choice for off-road touring. This was one of the sections that the German couple we had met on the first evening in Mongolia had been forced to walk across, at what would have been about a quarter of our cycling speed.
Looking to the east ahead of us was much the same as looking to the west behind. There was very little to see, no features and no sign that we were making any progress across the seemingly endless landscape. To the north, the unchanging Uvs Nuur horizon didn't help this, but to the south, the Khan Khokhii Mountains did provide a changing feature proving that we were indeed moving forwards and helping us to fight the mental battle to continue. Long days in the desert can be mind-numbingly boring but I have found that if I can get into the right mindset, zoning out of the cycling, I am able to appreciate the incredible environment and make the most of the peaceful, pressure-free time that I almost never have during day-to-day life. In hindsight, desert cycling is always fantastic, although at the time, it is a struggle. On top of the mental battles, another challenge was the high temperature combined with a lack of shade. Since it was 33 degrees Celsius, it was important to regularly drink and not to exert ourselves too much to stay cool. Fortunately, a slight tailwind was helping our progress and after a few hours we had covered 40 kilometres, at which point we stopped for lunch. Unfortunately, a bag of raisons that we had bought also contained a few small stones, one of which I mistakenly tried to eat. It took a large chunk of one of my wisdom teeth with it. It really hurt and I was worried about it becoming infected for the following few days because my gum swelled up painfully. Fortunately, it settled down after a while, perhaps with the help of some antibiotics that I had brought from home.
Unexpectedly, 67 kilometres from Ulaangom, we came across a small truckers’ stop, which sold drinks and very basic food, which had mostly gone out of date. We stopped and sat in the shade drinking a sugary multivitamin drink and showing our route to the family that lived in the ger next-door. They were intrigued by the fatbikes and all had a go. They showed us their water pump that drew water up from a hole that they had drilled in the ground, before offering us a shower. Drenching our heads under the cooling stream of water was wonderfully refreshing, before we waved goodbye and continued. The afternoon passed by in featureless desert miles as Uvs Nuur slowly came to an end. A few camel skulls lay near the roadside and every hour or so, a vehicle passed.
The highlight of the afternoon were the herds of horses that we passed, watering themselves in puddles that had formed on the sandy track during the last rainfall. At one puddle, the horses were rolling around in the wet mud to keep cool. They really are extraordinary creatures to be able to survive out there, with so little food and water, as well as such a harsh climate with over a 60-degree temperature swing every year between summer and winter. After 93 kilometres that day we pulled off the road and set up camp. Incredibly, as had often happened in Mongolia, 15 minutes later a nomad on a motorbike pulled up to say hi. He waved a pair of binoculars, which must have been how he had seen us so quickly from far away. I wondered if he was keeping an eye for Russian horse thieves. We cooked dinner and a panful of tea before settling down for the night. The stars in the desert that night were breath-taking. Since they appeared so comparatively bright due to the lack of light pollution, I could see the glowing white band of the Milky Way stretching across the entire sky.
Day 6: Across more steppe
Distance travelled: 90.81 km
A man with acquaintances is the size of the steppe
- Mongolian proverb
A strange noise woke me at sunrise, comparable to a very loud creaking door. The view from my tent door was beautiful as the sun rose above the handlebars of my fatbike that lay outside. Exiting my tent to investigate the noise, I found that its source was an extensive line of camels striding across the desert. Three camels seem to be leading the group and were at least a kilometre ahead of those at the back. Baby camels walked alongside their mothers and the line seemed to be communicating by making this eerie piercing creaking noise. Phil emerged soon after me for a distinctly average breakfast of super noodles and green tea. While we were drinking our tea, the lead camels seemed to decide that they were heading in the wrong direction. For whatever reason, they turned around and the rest of the line followed them as they started back in the same direction that they had come from. Despite their slow lumbering motion, they moved surprisingly quickly across the sand, perfectly adapted to their environment. These Bactrian Camels have two humps and are far rarer than the single-humped variety. Most in Mongolia are domesticated so we assumed these were probably owned by somebody, although the owner was nowhere to be seen. Bactrian Camels are incredibly tolerant to cold, heat, drought and high altitude, so became the animal of choice for the long-distance trade caravans of the Silk Road. In Mongolia, they have been used by nomadic people for many years to carry heavy loads, particularly dismantled gers and possessions when searching for new pastures.
After packing up, we were back on the track, a tailwind aided our progress once more and the sandy surface seemed to be getting stonier and more hard-packed as we moved away from Uvs Nuur. A few kilometres down the road we passed what looked like a large pump next to an industrial looking building standing on its own in the enormous desert surroundings. We weren't sure what it was used for, speculating perhaps for pumping water or oil. A single worker passed us on a motorbike, looking rather hungover. As we approached the next town on the road, Zum Gobi, the desert seemed to be easing and the steppe started to become greener and less dry. Having climbed on a very slight gradient for the last 40 kilometres or so, it was a welcome relief when the road began descending into a river valley. The river ran through the desert, flowing from the mountains in the south to Uvs Nuur to the north. On either side of the river, lush green grass grew, alongside bushes and a few trees; a long thin line of life in the otherwise barren steppe. Animals were drinking on the river bank, which seemed to be home to a variety of birds. Large cranes stood in the water on their long legs and a giant black pelican with a large bill descended onto the water, landing like a large aircraft. Of course, the ever-present eagles were in attendance and what looked like a species of duck were paddling across the surface of the water. We took the opportunity to have a wash and to clean our cycling clothes. Since it was so hot and dry, we could wash the clothes that we were wearing, put them on again and within 30 minutes or so, they would be completely dry. Having been coated in desert dust for the past 24 hours it was a great feeling to be clean again.
A soft sandy track climbed away from the river before crossing over a small pass, before reaching the small settlement of Zum Gobi, above which were a large number of eagles once more. Despite seeing hundreds of eagles in Mongolia, I still found them to be very impressive, with their muscular wings, long talons, beady eyes and curved pointy beaks. In Zum Gobi, we found a great little cafe, ran by a lady and her daughter, where we ordered two slices of homemade pizza each, alongside unlimited milky tsai and five large, freshly made buuz. Surprisingly, for such a small town, there was also a large "supermarket" which had a lot of produce from Edeka, a German supermarket chain. This was a great surprise since we had been expecting more super noodles and out of date choco pies. Instead we bought chocolate covered raisons, ice creams, pasta and sauce and lots of sugary goodies. Strangely, despite the relatively simple building and basic looking town, the small shop had six CCTV cameras along with a computer screen, monitoring every corner of the room. After loading up the bikes, we left the town under an overcast sky. The weather was changing as the sunny morning gave way to dark clouds, from which fell localized and very heavy rain.
Another sandy track led us out of the town and into green and barren steppe, with no gers, animals or buildings in sight. We struggled against a headwind for 20 kilometres or so, during which time the horizon didn't change at all. A few locals came over to say hi, including a couple of nomads on a motorbike, wearing the traditional outfit, which we hadn't seen very often up to that point. It felt as though we were now entering a more traditionally Mongolian area, as oppose to the far West, which is majority Kazakh. The two male motorcyclists wore the deel, which is a three-quarter length gown that buttons up at the right shoulder to a high round-necked collar. One wore a maroon deel, the other a grey-blue one. Traditionally, Mongols wear a thick sheepskin deel, lined with cotton in the winter and a thinner, patterned silk deel in the summer. The motorcyclists also wore a long cloth belt, wound several times around their waists. Both men and women wear this outfit, but strangely a man's belt is either three or five metres long (an odd number) and a woman's either two or four metres long (an even number). These two Mongols broke from custom as they were wearing trainers and caps, not the knee-length leather boots (gutal) and fur or leather hats that more traditional nomads would wear.
Our next visitor approached at the end of the barren steppe and the start of a much more fertile grassland, on which thousands of animals grazed and many gers were dotted in every direction. He approached, expertly galloping on a large brown horse. Nearing us, he began to dismount before the horse was stationary and hopped down next to us, a large smile on his thirteen-year-old face. He looked at our bikes as we waved, before remounting and galloping off to his sheep and goat herd nearby. Children grow up quickly in Mongolia and it appeared that this young boy was responsible, at least in part, for a few hundred animals, which would make up the majority of his family's wealth. These children may not be as academically able as those in the western world, but were already able to survive and flourish in this harsh environment, able to look after themselves far better than children in England. For the Mongolian nomad, survival skills and the ability to ride a horse, build a ger and look after the herds are much more important.
As the number of animals and nomads decreased once more, so did the quality of the grass and we were cycling once more through the barren steppe. Phil got another puncture, although it was slow enough that we could pump it up regularly to keep it topped up with air and continue to the campsite that night. We planned to reach a river that was marked on the map, hoping to be able to wash before bed. The next 15 kilometres or so dragged by without incident, but eventually we reached the river. Unfortunately, it had completely dried up but nevertheless, it was a wonderful place to camp. As we looked for a good spot to pitch the tents, we approached a guy kneeling on the side of the road. He noticed us when we were around ten metres away and jumped a mile, which we thought was very suspicious behaviour. He seemed to be hiding something, which looked like it may be a large bird of prey. Was he hunting illegally? Continuing, we found a beautiful, flat, grassy campsite on the other side of the valley.
Since we would be reaching another town very early the next day we used most of our water up for a few rounds of green tea, while Phil fixed his puncture. As the sun set I walked over to the only tree that grew for miles around. It was dying, but on it was built a giant eagles nest. Two large eagles sat in the tree, a perfect vantage point over the plain. The sunset behind the eagle tree was spectacular as the sky turned from blue, to yellow, to orange and finally to red. Back at the tent we used the fantastic Google Skymaps app to identify the stars and planets that were appearing in the darkening night sky. We saw Jupiter, Saturn and Mars, before the incredible night sky appeared again, so much brighter than back home. Looking up at the Milky Way made me feel part tiny and part of a much bigger world. Back home, it is very easy to forget that we are part of a gigantic universe, where light pollution masks the sky. Surprisingly, we heard a shouting male voice at top of the dry river bank. We waved at him as he came over asking for a drink. He downed a bottle of water, then ate a few of our waffle biscuits. He explained that his motorbike had broken down about 30 kilometres away and he'd had to walk through the steppe with no food or water heading to the nearby town of Baruunturuum. We told him he had only eight kilometres left to walk and wished him luck. A couple of hours later, while in bed, I heard a truck passing by. Possibly, he had found a friend to help him to pick up his motorbike. Mongolians travel very light given how far from civilisation their roads take them; a bottle of water and some food would have been very useful!
Day 7: A plague of locusts and a storm
Distance travelled: 85.41 km
Thunderbolts and lightning, very very frightening
With very little food left, we had only a few stale biscuits and a cup of tea to get us going that morning. Fortunately, just a few kilometres separated our campsite from the town of Baruunturuum. After around an hour of steady cycling, we reached its outskirts, where a shallow river flowed under a wooden bridge. We had a quick wash in the crystal-clear water, allowing us to look slightly more respectable for breakfast in a café. It was before nine o' clock when we reached it, so it was just opening. The chefs couldn’t offer us any food from their menu since a delivery had not yet arrived, so Phil went to the kitchen and pointed at some bread and eggs and they got the message. Twenty minutes later a giant deep-fried egg, tomato and spam sandwich was put in front of each of us. It was delicious, but incredibly filling and very oily, so we felt rather lethargic after eating. A well-stocked shop and a petrol station allowed us to resupply before we headed out into the steppe once more. The riding that morning was uneventful and featureless for the next 20 kilometres or so, until we reached the small hamlet of Duruunturuum, where we stopped in the shade of a derelict building full of noisy goats.
As we snacked on a Snicker each, a young boy approached nervously, riding his bike. I offered him a waffle biscuit, which seemed to give him confidence that we were nice people, so he sat down next to us, staring at our fatbikes. Soon his father followed and showed us that his sons bike had a problem. One of the pedals was broken. The man, named Dorjdavaa, brought over a toolkit from his nearby ger, enabling us to take off the pedal to inspect it. Unfortunately, it was damaged beyond repair and needed replacing so we couldn’t help. Soon afterwards, we were invited in by Dorjdavaa who introduced us to his wife, Chimedregzen, as well as his daughter. Since it was hot and muggy outside and we both felt sleepy after our ridiculous breakfast, we were very happy to spend an hour or so in the ger. Using a dictionary in the back of our guidebook, we were able to communicate with the family. We were offered tea, bread, hazelnut chocolate spread, tsai and curd, which we picked at as we talked. Dorjdavaa told us that family owned 30 sheep and 30 goats as well as a couple of horses. The lovely interior included a small dresser with lots of photos on display as well as a collection of medals that the son had won playing chess. It sounded like he was a very intelligent young boy and his father had great aspirations for his future. Dorjdavaa had very bad burns on one of his arms. I think he said that he hurt when a pan of boiling water fell off the stove in the centre of the ger. The family were not nomadic and lived in this small village all year round, seeming to have a comfortable life.
Around the ger, there were five beds, cupboards, a solar powered television, decorations, a "mans" cupboard, full of tools and motorbike parts, a small kitchen area with various parts of sheep hanging behind a sheet, and curds hanging from the ceiling to dry. We were each given a large piece of curd for the road. Next to the stove in the centre of the ger, was a large bucket of milk that was fresh from their cow that morning. The walls were patterned felt; green with large red printed flowers. A small Buddhist shrine was set up on the northern wall of the ger and, like with all gers, the door was positioned facing south to allow sunlight into the home and to face away from the cold northerly winds. Outside the ger was a longdrop toilet in a small shed and a wooden frame for tying up horses. While inside, it had been raining quite heavily, but as soon as it stopped we all went outside and the boy and Dorjdavaa had a go on the fatbikes. As we departed, we gave the family crayons for the children, fishing hooks and a candle.
Soon after we left the wonderful family, the rain started again and fell very heavily for an hour or so. Thunder shook the ground and lightning flashed on the horizon. Fortunately, the storm soon passed and the sun returned to dry us out. The road was now passing through a beautiful grassy pasture, with wildflowers growing in every direction. Bright white edelweiss, large spherical blue thistles, dark purple orchids, as well as small yellow and large red flowers that I've not been able to identify. The ground was swarming with large grasshoppers and other insects. As we moved forwards, the grasshoppers leapt upwards, so I concentrated hard, attempting not to crush the ones that jumped under my wheels. Many hovered by the path, their red wings flapping and making a loud buzzing noise. The road was bumpy, sandy and slow-going, but as akways, our fatbikes made the riding relatively easy. We rolled up and down small hills, through an interesting landscape, since there was always a changing horizon and a fun descent around the corner. The wild flower meadows soon gave way to the first planted crops we had seen in Mongolia. Wheat was being grown in a vast field stretching as far as the eye could see. I imagined harvest time, when the local people would surely have their work cut out to collect their crop before winter arrived. To the north were a range of giant sand dunes, in front of dark mountains on the other Russian side of the border.
Stopping for a snack, we rested the bikes on the ground and sat on the roadside. After a few minutes, my bike was absolutely covered in small sweat bees. Phil thought that they were stingless but it was nerve-racking to pick my bike up and cycle off with probably a hundred-or-so bees swarming around me. Since it was early evening, we needed to quickly pass through the field of wheat to find a spot to pitch the tents before sunset. We cycling into the evening, later than normal, until we rounded the northern end of a long mountain range. Now very close to the Russian border , cycling on a high point, we looked out over a beautiful mountainous landscape, in places coated with the first large pine forests we had seen in Mongolia. Finally, we exited the wheat fields and re-entered the beautiful wildflower meadows. A Toyota Prius hybrid pulled up with two guys driving to Ulaanbaatar. I couldn't believe they were driving such an unsuitable car along this sandy jeep track. I used to have one as a company car and found it to be excellent on long road journeys but equally learned that it was distinctly average off-road. They told us that it would take them at least two days to reach their destination before kindly passing us two bottles of water and wishing us luck.
At the first opportunity, we pulled off the side of the road and pitched the tents. This campsite had a very remote feeling, with nothing man-made in sight. To the south were large mountains, which concerned me slightly as I had read that wolves lived there and we were very far from civilisation. After we went to bed, the rain started once more and soon after came a thunderstorm. The weather became fierce, with intense winds and horizontal heavy rain. My one-man tent was waterproof but Phil's wasn't and slowly leaked for around four hours, during which the storm raged. I was counting the seconds between the thunder and lightning, from which you can calculate how far away the storm is. At one point the thunder came almost directly after the lightning, which was terrifying, as the whole sky flashed and the ground shook. I was worried that we would be struck but we escaped unscathed. I only slept for about three hours that night.